2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Eric Langley

My work here is almost done . . .  This is the fifth and last in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) –  reviewed below

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry) – reviewed here

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Do poets owe their readers explanatory notes? The pro-accessibility reply is ‘On principle, no!’ The googlers reply is ‘Not necessary – let your fingers do the walking’. Others might concede, ‘On occasions, maybe, for clarity’s sake or to take the piss out of critics and academe (see T.S. Eliot). But reading Eric Langley’s debut collection – if it’s proving hard to hang on to his erudite coat-tails – perhaps you cry ‘Yes, yes, for goodness sake!’ In fact, such pleas have already been answered by a curious, anonymous website that has sprung up to explicate many of these poems. Talk about poetry moving from the writer’s desk to the academic lecture hall without passing through an ordinary reader’s hands! It’s because Langley scrupulously offers us no help at all in positioning ourselves to read about the Chinese tradition of walnut gambling, Ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, Picasso’s father, Stephen Grosson’s 1579 book Schoole of Abuse, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Derrida on postcards, Argus, Eurydice, Zeno, Edgar Allen Poe and (twice) the art historical term pentimenti. And that’s mostly from the opening 50 pages of this 128 page book (I think it’s about 40 pages too long).

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On the other hand, Langley often writes with a vigour and robust rhythmical quality to perform (all these poems are very performative) a sort of Elizabethan riffing to scatter-shot effect. He has a slightly annoying, almost reflex habit of sampling bits of Shakespeare mid-poem (especially from Hamlet) but Ted Hughes wrote of Shakespeare’s language that it was “an inspired signalling and hinting of verbal heads and tails both above and below precision, [a] weirdly expressive underswell of musical neargibberish” (‘The Great Theme: Notes on Shakespeare’ (1971)) and at his very best Langley catches some of this. Literally born into the Cambridge school (Langley’s father, R. F. Langley, with his son, would often holiday with J. H. Prynne), Langley junior invigorates that difficult style with a 1590s fizz and gristle (his day job at UCL is studying the bard and more obscure Elizabethan texts) in poems whose image field is most often ekphrastic, whose emotional stance is often surprisingly sentimental and whose dominant atmosphere is one of loss.

The loss is key. Fundamentally this is about language (Cambridge School again) as the poor relation to ultimate reality. Our every living moment is a catalogue of loss; certainly our every communication is a clumsy moon-shot at a too-fast moving target, a shot also plagued by the drag of our words’ etymologies. But this is also (like the Forward short-listed books by Nick Makoha and Ocean Vuong) a book about lost fathers (Langley talks about this and other things and reads a poem in this interview). In addition, Langley’s sense of loss is elsewhere associated with the recall of a romantic attachment, what he refers to at one point, transmuting Anthony Burgess, as “memory’s ultraviolence”. This stirring of long-buried materials is what the book’s title alludes to. Raking light is used in art historical investigations to reveal the artist’s false starts and abandoned intentions – a sort of alternative historical version of the final painting. In fact, it’s that often over-done, old poetical favourite, the palimpsest, in art historical terms.

So ‘In raking light’ the narrative voice explains “in the beam’s fetch / the urgent silt sits up”. Perhaps my ‘explain’ is not the right word here – there is a sort of querulous (lover’s?) complaint going on in the tone as if the voice resents this uncovering of the past.

 

Once, there was life here –

residual and errant –

hushed since, shucked under

the thick skin, the tough slough.

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The vowel music in these few lines illustrates one of the pleasures of Langley’s work, but the “thick skin” is a gift to those who might accuse him of tending to bury hurt and loss under an avalanche of erudition rather than bringing it to the light. Indeed, it’s debatable whether this poem (in 8 sections), as it continues to offer multiples of synonymous formulations of this buried/hidden trope, manages to express a humanly complex emotional state or simply obscure it in a playful, bravura performance. The poem to read alongside this one is ‘Eurydice in Euston Square’ which – once it has got past its tacked-on allusions to Orpheus’ lost wife and Proserpina – proceeds much more nakedly and accessibly:

 

Come back up stairs

if you read me

 

up in the subway

missing the tube travel,

 

missing the coach trips,

all the seaside rides,

 

the telephones, the postcards,

telegrams on spun wire;

 

come back up stairs,

and I’m hanging on

 

subjunctives, hanging on

superlatives, hanging on

 

the sound of someone

long gone to static

(apologies for some loss of formatting here – blame WordPress)

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The more linguistic and epistemological losses that preoccupy Langley are clear in the opening line of the opening poem, ‘Glanced’: ‘You lovely looker on and by and by and.” The interruptive full stop is (ahem) the point (Langley’s love of puns can be infectious). The idea is then played out (again in a riffing, repetitive style) via another old favourite, Zeno’s arrow, though this time the target is Zeuxis’ painting of grapes which (in legend) was so realistic that birds swooped down to peck them. Art imagined to be closing on the real – of course, it proves a delusion. The arrow does strike the canvas but penetrates what is really nothing, then slams into a “wall”. The final section of the poem, in fact, does suggest some possible success (see Hughes’ comment on Shakespeare’s ultimate expressive achievement through signals and hints). The concluding lines display Langley’s vigorous use of anaphora, rhyme, punning and Shakespearean allusion:

 

So glancing blown by,

so palpably hit away, so

 

keep so lovely looking still

keep lovely looking till

 

until each hungry bird

has flown and had his fill.

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The sequence, ‘Albada: Pigeons on pink’, starts (once we’ve done the googling to find out) with Picasso’s painter father, Don Jose Ruiz y Blasco. He liked to paint pigeons and for a few sections he sounds pleased with the results. But then young Pablo asks for a pencil and his father is astonished at the boy’s skill, or the degree to which his art seems to approach reality: “all these real these / really real pigeons”. Via another allusion to Hamlet, Langley then morphs the poem into an address to his own father (who wrote a poem called ‘Jack’s Pigeon’) though the two sons – Pablo and Eric – are blurred together, avoiding filial arrogance in a burst of filial piety: “it’s all still yours, still yours to say, Jose”. An albada is a Spanish love poem – this one has been re-geared into a piece about the son’s love of a father.

The two poems called ‘Pentimenti’ return to the ideas linked with raking light. The Italian word means ‘regrets’ and in art history it refers to changes an artist makes and covers over in the process of creation. The first of the poems is shorter and mixes images of painting with those of telephoning and it’s the latter that suggests this is really driven by a broken relationship in the modern world: “lost out here – dialling, dialling”. Such loss of contact and communication trips all Langley’s switches. A similar instinctive, welling up, or inundation, of potent material can be seen in the over-long, repetitive sequence in the middle of the book. This springs from a detail recounted by Galen of Pergamon that Ptolomaeus, King of Egypt, in assembling his great library, would take books from any ship that sailed into port, have them copied, then give back the copies, retaining the originals for his own book shelves. So language, knowledge, forgery, copies, signs, semiotics, morse code, the Dewey system of classification, plus Hamlet on the pirate ship and the final Alexandrian conflagration – Langley throws it all into the mix  and gives it a good stir.

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For me, the second ‘Pentimenti’ is a much greater success, presenting itself as a literal palimpsest of the earlier poem – the thoughts, drafts and revisions that might have led to it. The performance here is not the dazzling, often impossible to follow footwork of other poems in the book, but rather one of hesitations, lines of thought taken up, then dropped, crossings out and (literal) fadings out. For me this expresses the difficulties of expression more effectively than many other poems, especially in the revisions we witness which involve a switch of verb tense from present to past. Most of these observations seem (again) to be focused on a romantic relationship so that what is the case (first draft) is being transformed into what was before our very eyes. I think (actually, I’m not sure) the sequence drifts latterly towards the relationship with the father again but even the obscurities here play an affecting role and the collection’s final lines remind me of the tragic, closing moments of Brian Friel’s play, Translations, in which the Gaelic language, culture and memory seems to be fraying and withering to nothing even as we watch and the lights dim.

Langley’s book will infuriate many and please the few. There is an impressive peculiarity here, a performative jouissance concerning language and learning which the Forward short-listing committee must be responding to. But I do wish he’d had a tougher editorial voice to cut the length of the book which – especially in the mid-sections – indulgently outstays its welcome.

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‘From Palette to Pen’ – a bit more ekphrasis

My blog post a couple of weeks ago on ekphrastic poems (ie. poems stimulated by visual art) proved to be one of the most popular I’ve ever written. This was in part the ‘how to’ aspect of the blog. In preparing to run a workshop at the Holburne Museum in Bath in February, 2017, I’d been reading a wide variety of poems derived in some fashion from the poet’s encounter with visual art and I tried to categorise the various approaches. I came up with 14: 

  1. Describe – and do no more.
  2. Describe but imagine beyond the frame
  3. Describe but incorporate researched materials
  4. Make Main Figure Speak – the most common approach
  5. Make Minor Figure/s Speak
  6. Make Objects Speak
  7. Make the Artist Speak
  8. Interrogation of the Artist
  9. Interrogation of illustrated Figure/s
  10. Interrogation of Yourself
  11. An Account of Your Encounter with the Art
  12. An Account of Gallery Visitors’ Experience
  13. An Account of Others’ Experience
  14. Come at a Tangent – the ekphrastic experience as after-thought or illustration

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While at the Holburne Museum I was given their recent anthology of ekphrastic poems, From Palette to Pen, edited by Frances-Anne King in 2016. It contains 20 poems stimulated by art objects in the Holburne and as well as recommending it as a great resource for ekphrastic writing, I thought I’d use it to test my earlier analysis of the form to see if it held water.

It did pretty well. It goes without saying that all the poems engaged to some degree in method 1 – description of the art object itself. But beyond that, by far the commonest approach was method 4 – making the main figure speak. This was adopted by Anna-May Laugher, Claire Dyer, Carrie Etter, Frances-Anne King, Pascale Petit, Linda Saunders and Lesley Saunders. Petit manages to make Adam speak, remembering his naming of the animals; Claire Dyer makes Rosamund Sargent speak from her own portrait by Allan Ramsay; Lesley Saunders makes one of the sisters, Alicia and Jane Clarke, speak and so betray their “little sisterly difficulties”.

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Another common approach was my method 8, an interrogation of the artist (without getting the artist to actually speak for themselves (method 7)). Jenny Lewis’ poem on a 17th century Rosewater basin began in this way, inquiring “What’s on his mind as he hammers / the silver, makes light flower”. Her poem goes on to incorporate some obvious research into the object too (my method 3) which takes her poem away from a narrow view into the colonial world of “London, the world, New England” in which it was made. David Hale, writing about Jan Asselyn’s ‘Landscape with Drover’ also imagines and interogates the artist’s approach, gazing at his own picture in process:

Ah, the south. He feels the heat of it

on his face and hands, smells dust, dung

and crushed thyme as he sips his coffee,

wonders again what the bull is looking at –

where time and life have gone.

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I’d be tempted to widen this category of approach – or even introduce a new one – because several poems in the anthology interrogate the artist specifically about the artistic methods used to create the art object. Sue Boyle does this in detail about the making of Antonio Susini’s bronze figure, ‘Crouching Venus’: “Coated in plaster, lowered into fire, / she must be negated, melted from her mould”. There are also elements of this approach in the poems by Dawn Gorman and Phillip Gross, the latter dwelling as much on the making of a Beadwork Basket as on its illustrations of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. Gill Learner’s poem also looks over the artist’s shoulder as he glazes a 15th century earthenware dish.

My method 9 – interrogating or engaging with one of the figures in the art work – was used by Caroline Heaton, Wendy Klein and Tim Liardet. Klein and Liardet both directly address figures in the image (for example, “Someone chose the best for you, Mary Bourchier” and “You let the baby grip his fingers”). Heaton’s engagement with Plura’s marble statue of ‘Diana and Endymion’ is a bit less direct, using the third person (rather than a second person address) to think herself into Diana’s state of mind:

Confined to the island

of the self, she laments

the chill of her lunar circuit,

its lonely eminence.

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Rosie Jackson approached a piece of furniture, ‘The Witcombe Cabinet’, via a brief description of it but quickly developed thoughts about her own mother and indeed herself which I’d take to be my method 10 – using the art object to interrogate or enquire into one’s own life: “”My mother would have loved it here, / the roped off beauty […] But I ask questions of locked drawers”.

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I think Claire Williamson mostly used method 3 – describe and make use of researched materials – in her poem on Thomas Barker’s painting of ‘Priscilla Jones’. The relationship between the sitter and the artist is the focus here, their romantic engagement and subsequent “passionless” marriage. In fact, I’ve not checked details of the painting/poem and I suppose it maybe that Williamson is making all this up – in which case she’s adopting method 2 – describe and imagine beyond the frame as George Szirtes does in anticipating the adult life of the boy in ‘Garton Orme at the Spinet’.

So the methods used in this anthology are fairly limited – seven of the fourteen I proposed. Those not adopted here are several varieties of ventriloquism (getting minor figures or objects to speak up; getting the artists to speak directly), the kinds of poem that more narratively describe encounters with art objects in a gallery or other location and a more tangential approach.

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Finally, Lawrence Sail’s poem describes a Mantuan School ‘Female Head’ and is probably the ‘purest’ ekphrastic poem in the anthology in that it does little more than describe the image – method 1. However, Sail addresses the woman imaged as “Our lady of the liminal” and as such he breaches the borders (“offstage”) a fair bit, beginning to imagine beyond the frame to some degree (method 2). It’s a lovely poem and deserves quoting in full:

Female Head, about 1525

Our lady of the liminal –

witness at her back the margins of

the unruly forest,

and the focus of all her attention

being offstage.

 

But the heart of the story is locked

in the ghost of her gaze – its candour,

the early signs

of grief, a drift to the verge

where hope wavers.

 

And everywhere, time on the make –

in the darkening turquoise of the sky,

the slow swell

of the trees, the craquelure moving up

to infect her soft features.

William Carlos Williams’ Brueghel Poems

Last week I travelled down to the Holburne Museum in Bath to take a look at their Brueghel dynasty exhibition – this is where I am running a poetry workshop this coming weekend (25th Feb – it’s waiting list only now I believe). So after last week’s blog post about the varieties of ekphrastic poetry, my mind is still on the same topic. Unsurprisingly I have been looking at William Carlos Williams’ late ekphrastic poems in Pictures from Brueghel (1962). I think the reasons why Williams was so drawn to these images 50 years ago remain the reasons why Brueghel’s star continues to rise in popularity (not just among ekphrastically-inclined writers) in our century.

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We like Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s work because it gives an impression of conveying a plain, unvarnished truth and this was done by self-consciously reacting against Romanist and more conventional, stylised Renaissance models. This gives many of the images a democratic or at least a demotic feel (something Melvyn Bragg and his guests pursued in the In Our Time edition on Brueghel’s painting ‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’). We also respond to Brueghel’s gentle caricaturing of human figures which seems to be done at least as much out of amused sympathy as satire. We are intrigued as well by Brueghel’s tendency to literal eccentricity, to displace the expected centre of his canvas, most notably in Biblical subjects where the Nativity or the journey to the Cross is subsumed – hard to spot – in a larger, village scene. In other images, there seems almost to be no clear centre of focus (in pictures on children’s games or Netherlandish proverbs, for example). For Williams, a 20th century poet interested in breaking with tradition (linguistically and formally), on fully recording the modern world as it is, and with a clear democratic (American) focus, Brueghel’s work makes an obvious rhyme.

Most of Williams’ poems about Brueghel’s pictures simply describe what is to be seen. There is a fidelity to the fidelity of what Brueghel does. The closing lines of ‘Children’s Games’ praises the way “Brueghel saw it all / and with his grim // humor faithfully / recorded / it”. ‘The Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ describes plainly the “riotously gay rabble of / peasants”, the poem intent mostly on conveying the sheer energy and vitality of the scene, climaxing in the “Oya!” cry which comes as much from the mouths of the peasants as from the admiring poet. What adds interest to this poem is the opening statement that such a fizzing and spilling of energy is “Disciplined by the artist / to go round / & round”.

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‘The Corn Harvest’ is likewise largely descriptive of the particular canvas though the role of the artist as ‘organiser’ is noted at the outset. The poem ‘Peasant Wedding’ repeats this descriptive method, varied only by the poet’s opening imperative address to one of the figures: “Pour the wine bridegroom”. The tension in this poem is less between artist and his boisterous subjects but between the boisterous wedding guests and the bride who sits “awkwardly silent”. Williams’ frequent thoughts about the nature of the artist surface most clearly in ‘Self-Portrait’ (a Williams’ mistake – in fact a painting not by or of Brueghel at all).  Starting again from plain description, the poem comes to focus on the artist’s eyes (“he must have / driven them hard”) and the poem deduces/speculates on the artistic commitment this implies: “no time for any- / thing but his painting”.

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In ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, Williams looks at the same painting that Auden did some 20 years earlier. Williams’ take is very much like Auden’s and both are finely attuned to Brueghel’s image which characteristically displaces the centre of interest (the falling boy’s body). For Williams, the event occurs “unsignificantly” and the splash goes “quite unnoticed” or as W H Auden put it more memorably as the Second World War got under way: “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”.

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‘The Hunters in the Snow’ mixes plain description with an interrogation of the artist’s choices as “organiser” of the image, his placing of objects to left or right, background or foreground. Williams again expresses his admiration for Brueghel’s concern “with it all”, for the older artist’s inclusive, comprehensive engagement with the world; this from the poet who wrote of wheelbarrows and cold plums. This insistence on art’s encompassing what is there (more than what we’d like to be there) emerges again in ‘The Adoration of the Kings’ (Williams also wrote about this image in Paterson (1958)). Here. Williams uses a bit of art history to point out Brueghel’s divergence from “the Italian masters”. Brueghel’s mind is said to be “alert” and “dissatisfied with / what it is asked to”. Rather than a slavish adherence to tradition, Brueghel is a “chronicler”, in particular in the eccentric portrayal of Joseph, chatting distractedly in the background, and Mary, eyes downcast, self-deprecating, almost hidden from view.

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The best of these poems is ‘The Parable of the Blind’. Using his usual devices of description of the image and comments on the artist’s judgment (its colours and diagonal arrangement of figures), the punch of the poem arises from an imaginative reading into the image. Some of the blind men’s faces are raised skywards, Williams says ironically, “as towards the light”, yet in reality they follow one another “stick in / hand triumphant to disaster”. It’s a “horrible but superb” picture” says the poem and perhaps Williams’ sense of the horror lies in the fact Brueghel has portrayed this moment (one of many that seem to have proverbial roots) with a fidelity that, on this occasion, accentuates the grimness far more than any possible humour: it’s an unusually cruel image.

14 Ways to Write an Ekphrastic Poem

Update (June 2019): I have written more on ekphrastic choices in a recent review published in Agenda Poetry.

Ekphrastic poems (ie. poems stimulated by visual art) are on my mind a great deal as I have been planning the all-day workshop I have been asked to run at the Holburne Museum in Bath on the 25th February, 2017. This particular exhibition, ‘Breughel: Defining a Dynasty’, opens on the 11th February and was in the news recently as it will include, among many others, a newly-rediscovered painting by Peter Breughel. I’ve been reading a variety of poems derived in some fashion from the poet’s encounter with visual art and I wondered if there was a way of categorising the various approaches. There are probably many – but these 14 ways (in 5 subgroups) are what I have come up with and they might usefully serve as a way to kick-start ekphrastic poems of your own. Try one a day for the next fortnight!

Through Description

  1. Describe – and do no more. This is always the poet’s initial desire, to put into words what has caught our attention visually (and because attention has been visually caught there is something about this image or object that chimes with the writer’s subconscious). In terms of the poet’s intention, the wish to describe may be sufficient (the subconscious may do the rest). Examples might be Michael Longley’s ‘Man Lying on a Wall’ (from Lowry’s paiting of the same name) or William Carlos William’s ‘The Dance’ (from Breughel the Elder’s ‘Peasant Dance’).

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  1. Describe but imagine beyond the frame – Derek Mahon’s ‘Girls on the Bridge’ (after Munch’s painting of the same name) does this, beginning with description of the scene but then wonders where the road leads away to in space, asks what the next day will bring (in time) and concludes with allusions to Munch’s more famous image ‘The Scream’: “bad dreams / You hardly know will scatter / The punctual increment of your lives”.

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  1. Describe but incorporate researched materials – an easy option in the world of Google where the artist’s life or love life, the political context etc are easily accessed. Edward Lucie-Smith does this in ‘On Looking at Stubbs’ ‘Anatomy of the Horse’’, working with the gossip of local people in the Lincolnshire village where Stubbs worked at preparing the horse’s carcass: ‘His calm knife peeling putrid flesh from bone”.

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Through Ventriloquism

  1. Make Main Figure Speak – the most common approach as famously done in Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Standing Female Nude’ (from Georges Braque’s ‘Bather’). Thomas Hardy makes the Elgin Marbles speak in ‘Christmas in the Elgin Room’.

 

  1. Make Minor Figure/s Speak – UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Not my Best Side (Uccello’s ‘St George and the Dragon’) might be considered a hat-trick of the category above but her decision to make all 3 characters in the painting speak, casting side-lights to and fro, means I put it here. Delmore Schwartz’s ‘Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine’ – while more free indirect speech than ventriloquism – has a similar effect, visiting each of the characters in Seurat’s picture and allowing their perspective to be aired.

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  1. Make Objects Speak – this is an obvious category though I’m a bit short on illustrations of it. BC Leale’s ‘Sketch by Constable’ almost does it by concentrating attention on a tiny dog sketched in the corner of an image of Flatford Mill. Ann Ridler also comes close by largely ignoring the foreground figures and focusing on the landscape only in ‘Backgrounds to Italian Paintings’.

 

  1. Make the Artist Speak – writing about Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’, Robert Fagles makes the artist speak, denouncing photography and preferring the expressive qualities of paint: “Of the life hereafter I know nothing, mother, / but when I paint you what I feel is yellow, / lemon yellow, the halo of rose”.

 

Through Interrogation

  1. Of the Artist – Vicki Feaver’s ‘Oi yoi yoi’ (on Roger Hilton’s image of the same name) starts with description but quickly begins talking directly to Hilton (“You were more interested / in her swinging baroque tits”). Interestingly, ekphrastic poems need not always stand in awe of the work; looking at Francis Bacon’s ‘Study for Portrait on Folding Bed’, Thomas Blackburn has a long one-sided conversation with the artist, charting a growing disenchantment with Bacon’s work, accusing him of “uttering, with superb, pretentious / Platitudes of rut, that you have said and said”.

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  1. Of the Figure/s – I have always admired Gerda Mayer’s poem, ‘Sir Brooke Boothby’ (after Joseph Wright’s image), in which she addresses with Sir Brooke about his languid pose, his copy of Rousseau, his intense scrutiny of the observer. Peter Porter’s many poems about art objects are hard to categorise but ‘Looking at a Melozzo da Forli’ (an image of the Annunciation) interrogates both image and the figure of Mary herself.

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  1. Of Yourself – probably all ekphrasis is a sort of self-interrogation but some poems make this more clear. The address often takes the form of admissions of ignorance or obtuseness in the face of the image or the asking of rhetorical questions. Robert Wallace on ‘Giacometti’s Dog’ once again begins in description but asks questions about the fascination of the image, eventually concluding “We’ll stand in line all day / to see one man / love anything enough”.

 

Through Giving an Account

  1. Of Your Encounter – Wallace’s poem spills across these artificial categories and might be placed here, among poems where the poet explicitly records details of his/her encounter with the work of art. Yeats famously does this in ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’, looking at images of Augusta Gregory and John Synge. David Wright (who lost his hearing at the age of seven) movingly describes his visit to Rome to see Maderno’s sculpture of St Cecilia (patron saint of music) in his poem ‘By the Effigy of St Cecilia’.

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  1. Of Gallery Visitors – poets often comment on the behaviour or experiences (imagined) of gallery visitors (and even the gallery attendants!). Gillian Clarke does this in ‘The Rothko Room’: “In this, / the last room after hours in the gallery, / a mesh diffuses London’s light and sound. / The Indian keeper nods to sleep, marooned / in a trapezium of black on red”.

 

  1. Of Others – admittedly a catch-all category this one, but sometimes (especially when the works of art appear in churches) the poet can be interested in speculating about the responses of more ‘ordinary’ people. Thom Gunn does this toward the end of ‘In Santa Maria del Popolo’ where Caravaggio’s ‘Conversion of St Paul’ is displayed. Having recorded his own response to the image he ends by staring at the old Roman women who come to kneel before it: “each head closeted // In tiny fists holds comfort as it can. / Their poor arms are too tired for more than this / – For the large gesture of solitary man, / Resisting, by embracing, nothingness”.

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Come At a Tangent

  1. Finally, the ekphrastic moment can be presented as if an after-thought, or illustration of a poem already half composed. There are famous examples of this, especially Auden’s ‘ Musee des Beaux Arts’ which spends most of its length contemplating in very general terms the way old paintings present suffering. Only towards the end does Auden refer to Breughel’s ‘Fall of Icarus’ which he describes in some detail to suggest how “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”. RS Thomas’ ‘Threshold’ does something similar, only concluding with allusions to Michaelangelo’s painting of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. And Seamus Heaney’s ‘Summer 1969’ records a visit to Madrid as the Troubles boiled in Northern Ireland, and only latterly does the poem focus on Goya’s ‘Panic’: “Saturn / Jewelled in the blood of his own children, / Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips / Over the world.imgres

Beyond Caravaggio and an old ekphrastic poem

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Two things dove-tailing this week . . . My thoughts way ahead of time about ekphrastic poems (poems stimulated by visual art) in relation to the workshop I am scheduled to run at the Holburne Museum in Bath in February 2017. The particular exhibition was in the news this last week as they will be showing, amongst many others, a newly-rediscovered painting by Peter Breughel. Also I went to the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at The National Gallery a couple of days ago. There, though the numbers of Carravaggios per square metre of wall space is relatively low, much of what’s on display by those who came under his influence is well worth seeing.

At the end of the 16th century Caravaggio brought an almost photographic precision to painting, mixing elements of still life with portraits and religious subjects. His people are caught (again almost photographically) in realistic seeming mid-gesture, twisting, stooping, hands wide or aloft. Then there’s the light: powerful light sources cast illumination and correspondingly deep shadows across the figures, darkening the brows of a face, across a hand at a card game, on exposed flesh. One of the ‘followers’ turns out to be Gerrit van Honthorst whose towering ‘Christ before the High Priest’ is displayed in the final room. As I came across it I had one of those moments of recognition. The picture has been in the National Gallery collection for many years and it provided the (ekphrastic) stimulation for one of my earliest poems.

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The poem eventually appeared in my first book, Beneath Tremendous Rain (Enitharmon, 1990) and I’ve always had a soft spot for it as Dannie Abse chose to include it in the plush, coffee-table anthology called Voices in the Gallery (Tate Gallery Publications) he edited 1986 with Joan, his wife and art historian. For a wannabe poet with no book yet it was a dizzying moment – a not-to-be repeated moment – being sandwiched between Zbigniew Herbert, W. H. Auden and Thomas Hardy! Year later I got Dannie to sign my original copy of it.

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The voice in my poem is naïve and unknowing, an art historian ignoramus (close to the autobiographical truth). But he looks hard, starting with a bewildered rationalism as he tries to get to grips with the stylised, stiff religious images of the “early galleries”. He understands he’s nothing more than one of the “casual visitors” who prefer to gaze at something familiar, the “recognisable gesture”, the more simply realistic and identifiable images contained in later works. But gradually he recognises the thorough-going empiricism of “dimension, distance and the need for accuracy” has its own limits (I still like the dig against my own gender’s devotion of facts, though the portrayal of the too submissive female partner I’d not let through these days).

The Expressionistic distortions of Van Gogh (“inconsistent with the camera”) begin to appeal to him as he understands the impossibility of a truly objective view (“eyes jaundiced / only with being human and limited”) which – he seems to be on a circular walk round the National Gallery – then allows him to re-assess the earlier images. With the passage of time and the loss of religious faith (I was sure of it then, back in the 1980s), these pictures also openly admit their distortions. Their “dogma is laughable now, or / almost so”. They obviously possess no camera-like claim to objectivity or all-inclusiveness. Rather they now seem to him to admit “in all self-consciousness, / other possibilities multiplying beyond the frame”. It’s at that point the image of Honthorst’s ‘Christ before the High Priest’ comes to mind. It seemed to me then an image that was interesting and powerful at least as much for what lies just out of sight as for what the casual visitor can see plainly.

Years later, in different poetic modes, I’m still intrigued by what lies just beyond our reach – the Daoist’s uncarved block of wood – still think it has as much power as what we plainly see. Here’s the old poem in full:

 

At The National Gallery

 

What am I to do with these angels’ wings,

with the literalness of these gaping heavens

and haloes in the early galleries?

No-one believes them. Beyond meaning,

they are absurd – mannered and posed figures

as unlikely as the nude’s fig-leaf, the wooden

gestures of saints staring straight through you:

uncomfortable attitudes, seeming content

with their fantasies of transfiguration and myth.

 

Yet casual visitors walk right past. They’re drawn

to quotidian scenes, the scruffy breeches, old hats

in later pictures where they scribble notes,

trying to capture the vanishing feelings

of viewing these captured moments

of vanishing things – the recognisable gesture

at an execution, on the river, in the boudoir.

And I with them, yet always end uncomfortably

tracing holiday strolls through Canaletto’s

Venice or impatient somehow with men

who explain to their quiet partners about

dimension, distance and the need for accuracy.

 

But Van Gogh’s crippled chair confounds them,

restores a sense of things perceived in ways

inconsistent with the camera, eyes jaundiced

only with being human and limited which is

other than the capture of fleeting things,

the stunned insect, and like verse that must

struggle to avoid its final stop: another fairy-tale

though there are no haloes, no heaven here.

And I go back to those old pictures to find

their appeal, uncovered, is the honesty, almost

innocence, time has forced upon them,

for what was then dogma is laughable now, or

almost so. Uncameralike, their contentment admits,

rather asserts in all self-consciousness,

other possibilities multiplying beyond the frame:

 

like the one candle, illuminating a room,

the gleaming tabletop, across which one detailed,

serious face confronts another, unnaturally

bound in by a darkness in which we make out

nothing, yet know someone moves inches beyond

vision, rising, strained forward and demanding:

Give me some light, I say, lights! Now! A taper!

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